4 Jun 2017

‘Unniz Turning Beez’

During the hyper stage of ex ‘Brass-Tacks’ (BT) in 1986, when war seemed imminent, 104 (an Anti-Tank Guided Missile Unit - ATGM) was deployed near No 6 (Independent) Armour Brigade, on featureless sandy terrain south of Suratgarh (no helipad, just bloody sand). We were completely dependent on the Brigade HQ to give us water, food, cooking utensils, fire wood, tambu, bucket, dry sanitation WC,  aviation fuel, SS-11 missiles, batmen, field protection, candles, mugs,  plate, fork & spoon, vehicles, communication land line with field telephone, bunkers with Charpoy, field camouflage netting, picks and shovels to dig trenches, ………..whatever, long list, for around 22 AF officers and 70 air men; essentials required to live in the dessert to fight another day. 

You see, the AF operates on a ‘Mother Syndrome’ with air bases acting as Mother. One just has to fly from base to base, go to Mummy (the Chief Operations Officer or Chief Adm Ofiicer) and tell him, ‘Ma…., I am  hungry’. They take care of you. But 104 was kicked out of air bases and told to go fight with the army. Army has ‘Step Father Syndrome’, no mother to report to. In 104, we had never heard of WET (war equipment table) the big list, that enables all army units to Platoon level, to live in a ditch in Timbuktu and run overnight to fight in  Burkina Faso, without Mummy, just WET.  

We did go to 6(I) Armd Bde HQ and beg the venerable Commander, ‘Ma…, I am hungry’. But he acted like Father without Mother. Told us to stay far away from him, lest we steal his prized dry sanitation porcelain WC with pig attached. The tragedy was that the army, though kind and helpful, had none of their WET to spare, they had themselves got into the battle mode, constantly on the move. So we had to beg borrow and steal, live off the land, often capturing tiny desert hamlets vacated by villagers who had panicked fearing war and had run away. 6(I) Armd Bde also had this nasty habit  of daily running away from us, without any notice, into new highly camouflaged dugouts, miles away from  the previous one, leaving us like headless chicken. So every morning we had to first fly a reconnaissance mission to find 6(I) hiding under camouflaged nets to beg them for WET and also what they wanted us do in war.

‘I am busy, go play with Col GS’, the Cdr 6(I) would counsel like a benevolent father without mother.
When Col GS was approached, he would counsel, ‘Oh go play outside, do whatever you want’, like mother preparing for coitus with father.

So we made war on our own, along the IB, converting the young boys into 2, 3, and 4 helicopter ‘combat leaders’ to lead attack formations, mostly at 25 feet. 25 feet was important. That was to keep ourselves below the enemy radar, the sneaky Air Defence type, and approach radar buggers, under camouflaged nets at Suratgarh. They had a nasty habit of daily reporting to Air-I and C-in-C Western Air Command in Delhi that 104 was uncontrolled nasty cavaliers ruining the ‘Air Space Management’ in TBA.  At 25’ we were phantoms of the sky, none knew where we were or what we did. Great fun pretending to shoot Indian army tanks and hay stacks where ever we could find one, with dud missiles that had no batteries.  We didn’t see any Pakis about, and hence couldn’t scare them with the dud missiles.

This story is really not about BT.   It is about ‘Unniz Turning Beez’. So here we go.

On a freaking hot day during BT, while the Pak and Indian armies were doing sensible siesta under camouflaged netting, I volunteered to ferry an ATGM  Chetak, whose rotor had got damaged by a stone, back to Sarsawa (Saharanpur) and bring back another one, by evening.  The CO W/C JK Kaushik  asked me to  take along a troublesome younger Rimcolian YS, a year junior to me, whose ambition was to be an investment banker, not a pilot, though he wore a wing and claimed flying bounty. ‘Only you can sort him  out’, the CO told me, ‘make him fly’.
So I dragged YS by his elbow to the helicopter.

‘Do you want to fly ?, I asked  YS when we were strapped up in the cockpit.
‘He, he, he, he, he’ YS neighed like a  horse.
‘What does that mean, he he he he ?’ I asked raising my eyebrows in consternation.
‘It means No’, pat came the reply.

Two  Rimcolians should never be allowed to fly together. I could not even bullshit YS, due to Rimcolian camaraderie. Just had to lump it, hoping I could  learn from him the art of investment banking and ‘Das Ka Bis, or at least convert me from ‘Unniz to Beez’, like my Fox Sqn senior, venerable ‘Ekkis’ who turned to ‘Bayees’.

So while YS sat reading a three months old ‘Financial Times’ (analysing share prices),  I climbed up to 8000’, tuned the radio  compass to Sarsawa and made the 162 nautical miles long  uneventful trip without  navigating, though the Chetak was behaving like a cocktail shaker making martini out of me. I collected the replacement Chetak  immediately but YS went home to  do ‘de-sludging’, pumping out the bilge, which took all afternoon. He returned with a smug very satisfied look, about 1’ 50” before sunset, with a bundle of 2 month’s backlog of  Financial Times and investment guide under his arm, material to destroy Paki economy in case we lost the war. There was barely enough time to get back to the featureless sandy terrain south of Suratgarh with no helipad, just bloody sand, before the sun set.

‘Do you want to fly ?, I asked  YS again, when we were strapped up.
‘He he he he he’, YS neighed like a  horse.
I didn’t ask what that meant. He had already told me earlier.

‘Look YS’, I told him. ‘While coming, it was easy to find Sarsawa. But now we have to go back and find the Op Location, the ruddy featureless sandy terrain south of Suratgarh with no helipad, just bloody sand, before the sun set. We have just this stupid B2 golf ball sized compass and it is going round and round seeking north, due to your magnetic personality. Please help me to navigate 162 nautical miles using eye ball Mark-1 and this moving thumb display’, I lamented, waggling my thumb.

‘OK, give me your map, I will do map reading’, he said with churlish Rimcolian camaraderie.  So I gave him my map, the 1935 edition standard Lambert’s Polygonic,  1: one million, where  earth is just a dot in the solar system. I got busy getting airborne and making a bee line for the  ruddy Op Location, the featureless sandy terrain south of Suratgarh with no helipad, just bloody sand.

‘Beware, Sirsa, Suratgarh and Bhatinda are active. Low level  fighter flying’, Sarsawa Air Traffic Control whispered in my ear like Nostradamus, and the radio went dead perhaps because it was shocked by Nostradamus . I should have turned around and gone back to Sarsawa, but I didn’t. I knew that if we turned back, YS will  go back home and by the time he finished de-sludging again and again, and finished analysing two month’s back log of share prices, the war would be over. So I just said ‘f*** it’, descended to 25’ feet above ground, where neither crows nor fighters dare to fly. I set course for the microscopic 'dead reckoning' point on the million map, that was our Op Location, the ruddy featureless sandy terrain south of Suratgarh with no helipad, just bloody sand, before the sun set, with YS doing map  reading.

I cut across the control zones of both Sirsa and S’Garh, with no radio contact, and only occasional ‘whisper contact’ with God. But even God was silent when I  whispered into his ear, like my wife when she had PMS and I had to resort to ‘Apna Hath Jaganath’, the moving thumb type. I had to go 162 nautical miles, at 90 knots, at 25 feet above ground, the setting sun shining right into my eyes, a flying time of about 1’ 50”, with 2’30” of  fuel before the fuel warning light came on, explicitly  demanding that I force land.

I knew that at 25 feet, at full pelt 90 kts, the orographic wind was not likely to take me off course. But the air driven gyro Direction Indicator (DI) was definitely going to lead my illustrious career astray, especially if I didn’t synchronise it with the B2 compass every few minutes. Since the B-2 was still going around seeking north, I neither had the DI nor the B2 golf ball to steer. I only had YS to save me, turn me from  ‘Unniz To Beez’

‘Are we on track ?’,  I would ask YS every few minutes  out of anxiety.
‘Yes Boos, Tickety Boo’, YS would respond.
I was very happy that I didn’t have to do mental  maths, 1/60 rule to figure out drift + closing angle to  get back on track. As we progressed, we buzzed trees and villages , and ducked under 33 & 66 kVA HT cables just close to the pylons, and didn’t bump into any crows or fighters. Soon, in the setting sun, the green countryside turned brown  and then yellow as we approached the deserts. Sand dunes started popping up and we pooped up with it . Went down when the dunes were not popping out like Champaign corks – a tactic called ‘nap of the earth flying’. I was hoping that all this excitement will enthuse YS to start flying and also help convert me from ‘Unniz to Beez’ in the share market.   

We flew along merrily for 1 hour and 50 minutes.
I began to look for our Op Location.
I didn’t find Father Brig, Mother Col GS or my venerable CO 104 waving out to me.
There was no sign of life, just sand dunes.

‘Where are we ?’ I asked YS with mounting trepidation. ‘Where the f*** are we ?’
‘Tickety Boo Boss’, YS answered.
That is when I noticed that YS was holding Lambert upside down, facing north when we were heading south. YS had no cue of map reading or moving thumb.
‘Jesus Christ’, I screamed.  ‘YS you bugger, where the f*** are we ?’
‘Don’t shout at me’, YS ordered. He promptly threw the map into my lap. He put on his reading glass and took out his share-market score card.
I pulled up, a better manoeuvre than to pile up.

It is difficult to fly at 25’ and do moving thumb display, especially when one is lost and don’t know where to poke the thumb into Lambert.
I called up Suratgarh hoping to get a homing or bearing, but the radio was silent.
I back tracked looking for something, it  didn’t matter what.
There was nothing to see except desert and a few Kikar trees here and there.
I flew around in  expanding circles hoping to see something, anything other than the dessert and Kikar trees that will get me find my destination.

I began to sweat profusely out of nervous tension.
I began to recite Hanuman Chalis, but immediately realised that Hanuman can’t hear me without the radio.
I tried to remember desert survival lessons;  water, food and shelter. We had none of these things on board.
I looked at the fuel gauge since looking at anything else was quite useless, I was absolutely lost.
We had about 20” fuel left.
The sun was about to set.

Then  I saw goats, a whole bunch of them and a single ‘Lambadi’ with a long stick herding them. Hanuman must have heard my Chalis, or Unnis, sent goats to guide me to Valhalla.

Immediately I descended and landed next to the Lambadi, kept the rotors running and told YS to hold on to the controls while I went to enquire from the Lambadi ‘where the f*** were we’.

The goats, a barking dog and the Lambadi started to run away.
I ran like Usain Bolt right after them and did a baseball tackle. The Lambadi started bashing my bone dome with his long stick thinking I was a Martian with the visor down over the Oxygen mask. The barking dog turned to a biting dog.  I took off the bone dome to look human, and wrenched the stick from the Lambadi, gave the dog a whack and a kick. It started yelping, making the sheep mad.

I let fly a few Punjabi epithets, just to sound human, making it sound like upper crust Mewari cum Marwari (‘Todde Ma Ki Dal’ /’Teri Pen De Ink’).  That helped convince the Lombard that I wasn’t Martian. Punjabi epithets help calm barking dogs and the sheep too.
‘Hukkum, Hukkum’, the Lambadi kept repeating senselessly, not understanding a word of any language I tried including ‘Punjab Ki Voh’.
So I gave up and returned to the helicopter.

When I strapped up again, I noticed the tiny little white lamb, amongst the bunch of black sheep. The bugger had high level of ‘Officer Like Qualities’ and was leading the pack.
I sat there for a while, looking at the direction they were going.
I picked up the helicopter and followed them, over taking them after a few minutes.

The sun set and the afterglow began to fade. Within minutes the desert became pitch dark.
Then in the distance I saw petro-max lamps,  several of them.
It was my Sqn deployed in a wady, adjacent to a hamlet with a well, from where the sheep had come.

When I landed, I didn’t have to switch off, the engine conked out on its own because the fuel had finished.

That night I made YS a ‘Char Sau Bis’ and made him sign for everyone’s drink, though he didn’t drink any.
He didn’t share his trade secrets, from share market, to  make me Unniz Ka Beez, I remained Unnis.
I don’t chant Hanuman’s Chalis anymore, the radio has quit.
So I chant ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep, Can You Show Me The Way’ !!!

I am still ‘Unnis’ and have not become ‘Beez’.


20 Feb 2017

My ‘Spider Man’ - Mohammad Ali

On the first day I reported to 43 Sqn, 46 years ago, everyone at Jorhat had ‘passed out’. Bhang, victory in war and Holi when combined, does that to everyone, they march off to Valhalla. I was then just 20 yrs old.

A young boy, perhaps around 15 or 16, came silently, picked up my steel trunk and hold all bag, put them on his head, and took them to a barely furnished TRS room with a toilet, which then became my ‘home’ for next five years. The young boy was a refugee from East Pak.  ‘Ami Mohammad Ali’, he said grabbing my hand and shaking it vigorously. He couldn’t speak a word of any language which I understood and looked like an undernourished monkey in torn and tattered unwashed clothes. He spread my ‘hold all’ on the nawar cot, took out  the extra bed sheet and pillow, and  moved in with me, under my bed. He then took over my life.

Ali had no relatives and nowhere to go.  Very quickly he put on weight, grew as tall as I, and took possession of everything I owned; my clothes, razor and after shave, flying overalls, Ray Ban, Akai Music System and took to wearing my formal mess dress, the ‘the white patrols’ with a side cap. ‘It has become  small for you, go make another one’ he ordered. Very quickly Ali learnt not only Hindi and a bit of English, but also to sign extra messing chits for  himself copying my signature, write dhobi list for both of our clothes, polish his shoes better than mine, fix our uniforms (my white patrols which wore with élan), clean our room and even demanded 15% of my Rs 330 salary as my 24x7 living-in soul mate; my exclusive ‘Spider Man’.

As bound to happen between comrades, he started keeping a tab on my GFs too. ‘Mem ya Phaltu ?’, he would enquire, and got pissed off if I ticked him off or told him to mind his own business, go and sleep  under someone else’s bed.  Everything concerning me was his only business. If I was happy he was happy, and sad when I was sad. When I went outstation, or on detachment, Ali would wear my flying overalls and surreptitiously board my aircraft. ‘Someone has to take care of Saheb, even in the air’, he would say if any one questioned. I was not allowed to question Ali. Soon Ali became my banker. He had converted my tiny Godrej shaving soap tin into a piggy bank, and always had Rs 5 of my own money to loan to me in crisis. Rs 5 was enough to conquer the world those days. When I became an Adjutant, Ali learnt AF Act 1950, AFOs, AFIs, and the fat AP-129 (aeronautical subjects), just to read the riot act to me if I wasn’t nice to him.  When I went on posting, Ali knew all about travel regulations, warrants and Form-Ds. ‘If the Government Sahiban allows you to carry a horse or mule on posting, what is your problem taking me with you ?’, he would ask. So Ali became my shadow, mentor and companion where ever I went.

After about eight years I decided to get married. Ali went around shouting ‘Mem Aa Raha Hai, Ab Se Sahib Ke Pas Phaltu Nahing Hoga’. Bloody rascal !!! 

After a week or so, he started scratching his head and when I enquired why, he told me that he too wanted a ‘Mem’, that he had someone in mind. So he loaded my Jawa dicky with 4 bottles of my Rum, put me behind my bike and took me to the village, wearing flying overalls and my Ray Ban. ‘Ladki Aur Uska Bap Ko Patao’, Ali ordered, ‘you are very experienced and like my father’, he added. So  after protracted negotiations for about an hour, fixing a bride price of 4 bottles of Rum, Ali was married to Bhanu, a young , simple, 16 yr old village lass. He wanted to bring Bhanu and set up  home under my bed. This time I read the riot act to him and very humbly suggested that he become a ‘Ghar Jamai’ with his new in laws in the village till I could find suitable accommodation for him in the Air Force camp. As  wedding present Ali appropriated my entire ‘Camp Kit’ and piggy bank,  and made me buy a cycle for him.  After that I went and got married to T and brought her back to  Chabua.

T & Ali hit it off from day one, mainly because he would regale her with never ending stories of my bachelor life and T was hell bent on hearing every word in the series of torrid stories. She said she wanted to get to know the man she married.  I was hoping to start with a clean slate and Ali was a strategic nuclear threat. He even offered to take T sightseeing on my mo-bike and introduce my old GFs. That is when I read the riot act the second time, and threatened to chop off Ali’s gonads. 

Ali remained my Jeeves, refusing to do anything unlawful which T ordered. He often quoted AF Act, 1/60 rule and even Vir Narayan’s Point of No Return formula.  Ali knew about those things more than I did.  But between Ali and I there was no law, just exemplary loyalty arising from gratitude. He was a refugee with no family, except me. Perhaps reason why he believed that everything that I had was his too. Ali worshipped T, followed her about like a Labrador puppy. When we were posted in NDA, I got Ali a job in MES, as an electrician. He was good at that sort of thing, short-circuiting my life. In due course, while I moved on, because Ali was intelligent, industrious and a good worker,  he rose to  be a foreman in GE’s staff in NDA. Bhanu and Ali reared five sons, all of them, Super-Men, the elder two joined the Indian Army.

When I took a PMR from AF in 1994, Ali heard about it and came to see me in Delhi. We sat and chatted about good old times. He expressed his wish to make a visit to B’Desh, ‘just to go see if there is any one left, and to check whether I still own the “Do Bigha’ that my father owned before the ‘Bhoka Choda’ killed him.  My sons must see where I came from.
‘Where do you come from?’, I asked after 23 years.
Ali was quiet for some time thinking. ‘I don’t know Sir’, he said sincerely.
‘Where do you come from ?’, Ali asked me in turn.
I sat there in the evening hours of my life, thinking. ‘I don’t know either Ali’, I said with equal sincerity. We were two flotsams from nowhere who met and fused as brothers.

Ali took his family and went back to B’Desh, never heard from his afterwards. Perhaps he went home, no longer a refugee. I am still  a refugee, hoping that I can find my roots, and that Ali would come back and sleep under my bed, to keep me safe and content, just the way  he did when we were young.

Cheers Mohammad Ali. I owe you.